John 17 records the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Upper Room with His disciples at the conclusion of their last supper together. Though the Gospels frequently record Jesus going off by Himself to pray, this is the only recorded prayer of Jesus of any length which provides an indication of the sort of things Jesus might have said when He prayed.
What can we learn from this prayer about how to pray?
The Structure of the Prayer
Scholars have long noted that the prayer is divided into three basic sections. First, Jesus prays for Himself (17:1-5), then for His disciples (17:6-19), and finally for all who would believe in Him (17:20-26). Much can be said about the content of Jesus’ prayer, especially that the primary prayer request of Jesus for all who would believe in Him is that we would be unified (17:21). But my purpose here is not to analyze and explain the prayer of Jesus as much as it is to simply look at how Jesus prayed.
The Posture of Prayer
Notice first the posture of Jesus. The text does not tell us if Jesus was sitting, standing, or reclining (though reclining on the floor was the typical way of eating meals and conversing afterwards in first century Middle Eastern culture). One thing is for sure though: Jesus definitely was not bowing folding His hands, bowing His head, and closing His eyes. To the contrary, the text says He “lifted up His eyes to heaven” (17:1), which indicates that His eyes were open and His head was raised.
Nevertheless, this is not the “God-approved” posture of prayer. It is not as if such things as kneeling or standing, arms up or arms down, eyes open or eyes closed make any difference in whether or not God hears and answers our prayers. If God is concerned about any sort of posture in our prayers, it is the posture of our hearts, which no one can see but Him alone.
The Prayer Requests
What else can we learn from the prayer of Jesus about how to pray? Well, notice that Jesus begins with Himself. How often have we been told in sermons and books on prayer that we must not begin with ourselves, but instead, begin with adoration of God, and thanksgiving for what He has done? I not only have heard sermon; I have preached sermons about this! Yet the first thing Jesus does is pray for Himself. But notice what He prays. The primary prayer of Jesus for Himself is that He would glorify the Father. So really, this first prayer request is not exactly about Jesus, but about glorifying God the Father. This is a great thing to pray for yourself, because brining glory to God the father is one of the primary reasons we are here on earth.
Of course, Jesus does not only pray for Himself as some of us are guilty of doing (myself included!), but spends most of it praying for others. I think most of us are familiar with the concept of praying for other people, and so I will not belabor the point, other than to say that the primary prayer requests of Jesus for others is that they would remain faithful to God, and in unity with one another. I don’t think God minds hearing prayers for Aunt Mabel’s bunion, our neighbor’s dog, and how the rent is overdue, especially when these are issues that really do concern us. But I do believe that it would be wise for all Christians to develop a broader vision for prayer than how we can use it to tell God about our aches and pains and bills.
How Jesus Does Not Pray
Notice also what is not in this prayer of Jesus. Nowhere is the needless repetition of the name of God. Nowhere is any attempt to ward off the devil. Nowhere is any flowery and fancy language to impress those who present with His advanced holiness. In fact, there is almost nothing that sets this prayer apart from any other conversation Jesus has with any of His disciples elsewhere in the Gospels. His conversation with God sounds pretty much just like a conversation He might have with Peter, or Matthew, or John. For Jesus, communicating with God was just like communicating with others. No special language was needed.
And this brings us to what I think is the main thing we can learn from the prayer of Jesus in John 17. As I read the prayer, it almost sounds as if the prayer is a small part of a much longer conversation He has been having with God for a very long time. As such, Jesus does not appear to have the need to fit everything in, follow a prayer outline, use any special language, remember any prayer requests, or even begin and end the prayer with a flowery introduction and conclusion. He simply transitions from talking to His disciples to talking to God. One second He is looking at His disciples and speaking with them, and then next He is looking at God and speaking with Him. His tone and language and posture and even the content of what He is saying does not really change. For Jesus, prayer is just continuing a conversation with God.
When understood this way, prayer become much less of a mystery about how to pray and what to pray for and who can pray and where to pray, and much more like a conversation we have in everyday life. If you can talk with a friend, you can talk to God. That is how Jesus prayed, and how we can pray too.